Untangle and grow

A blog by Alison Maxwell

Monday, 9 December 2013

Waiting for confidence to arrive

I seem to work with quite a few folks for whom 'confidence' or more accurately lack of it, seems to be a root cause. Its not unusual therefore to get into a conversation with someone about how they are held back  by their self-esteem and confidence 'issues'.

A common theme I often hear is a contingent one - 'I'll be confident when... x, y, z is true'.  Confidence will only become available to them some time in the future, and guess what, that time is always some way away. This theme is often allied with unrealistic self-expectations, and confidence seems to be associated with the need to be perfect ... 'I'll be confident when I'm perfect'.  And of course that time will never arrive for any of us.

Confidence only comes in the 'now' by accepting that you are never going to be perfect but that you are probably (already) good enough. That means taking responsibility for your state everyday and not postponing or procrastinating. As Susan Jeffers says 'Feel the fear - and do it anyway!'

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Using 'provocation' in coaching - coaching skills

Just come back from an interesting talk given by Sue Knight, doyen of NLP coaching. Sue's topic was 'coaching with humour' but what she really was talking about was using provocation in coaching. Sue made a convincing case that asking the provoking question - playing  the devils advocate - should be a legitimate tool in our coaching armoury.

Clients presumably come to coaching to make some change or improvement in their lives... and that often means mixing things up a bit. A provocative question, delivered deftly with humour and a twinkle in the eye, may take clients into new territories and firm their resolve to act. "What makes you think you've got what it takes... why should anyone listen to you... how long are you willing to tolerate this?" . Tone, as you can imagine, is everything.

Like any powerful 'technique', provocation need to be used with great care, and only when there is enough rapport and relationship between coach and client. In the wrong hands, or badly timed, the provocative question could come across as uncaring or just plain rude. Sue also challenged us to think about what questions we wouldn't ask a client and therefore what limits we might be unnecessarily imposing on the work together. Provocative indeed.

Friday, 4 October 2013


The T'GROW model is a classic framework for coaching conversations particularly those with problem-solving flavour.  Here's an unusual presentation of the model using Prezi, an innovative alternative to Powerpoint. Enjoy!

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Passion and Patience

I spent a very restful week last week, walking in the sunshine of the Amalfi coast, staying with an Italian farming family. Like many Italian farmers, Pasquale, the head of the household, is finding the going tough at the moment. However he's a man with a quiet passion ... making his own wine from his own grapes. He only makes a 1000 bottles a year ... not enough to be commercially viable... but definitely enough to treat family, friends, and the odd visitor, as well as keeping his dreams of becoming a niche producer alive.

Whilst his passion for his vines is obvious, this is also a patient man who is prepared to wait. Fine wine can't be made overnight, and it will be years, if not decades, before he sees the end product of his labours.

Pasquale got me thinking about 'passion and patience' in the context of leadership. Sadly, I meet too many without either quality, who neither stir the heart nor stay the course. The patient but passionless leader resigns themselves to a life time of work they feel nothing for, while the passionate impatient goes off like a firework, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake often as not. 

So let's hear it for the passionate patient leaders, those willing to stay the long course to deliver the things they really care about. As they say 'good things come to he (or she) who waits.'

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Using SCARF to understand motivation

Sometime you come across a new model that just seems to explain so much. The SCARF model, authored by brain researcher David Rock, is a model of the basic conditions that motivate.. or demotivate... us. Without these in place we will feel some level of discomfort or disengagement, with them in place we feel energised and a sense of possibility.. motivated in other words. Here's what SCARF stands for:

S - Status: we all need to feel recognised and valued by those around us. Status might come from our position or expertise, or it might come from a simple thank you from a boss.
C - Certainty: we all need a sense that we can predict how things will turn out. Without certainty we can become stressed and unsure of ourselves
A - Autonomy : we like to feel we can make  decisions for ourselves .. think back to what it was like when someone micro-managed you
R - Relatedness: a sense of connection with those we work and live with
F - Fairness: a feeling that the decisions that affect us are made fairly, and we are getting our fair share of rewards and opportunities.

Think back to a career lo-light - which of the above were missing for you? Think back to a career hi-light chances are all five elements were present for you. A very helpful model to share with clients, particularly those experiencing difficulties and uncertainty.

If you get interested here's David talking about SCARF as a model of influence in leadership click here

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The moustache under your nose

Recently I had two very stimulating conversations with friends I've not spoken to for a while. Both have had successful corporate careers, and now, reaching a certain age (I won't embarrass them), are turning their minds to what they would like to do with the last years of their working life. Both still have energy and passion, but want to devote their time to something they find personally meaningful, as well as earn a crust. So the subject of 'what to do next' has been forefront for them.

Now when people reach this stage, what I often hear is ambitions to do something wildly different, exotic or left-field. Not the case for these two. Instead of wanting to cycle the length of Burma (one of my own exotic ambitions) or climb Mount Kilimanjaro, they have experienced more of a 'coming home' to themselves. Both have been appraising the sum of their (considerable) experience and finding that what they want to do is something very aligned to their sense of themselves as a human being and now that they can see it, it seems completely obvious as a direction. So obvious in fact they have discounted it as a possibility and were in danger of forgetting all about.

So what is the 'moustache under your nose' - the thing so obvious that you've stopped seeing it? Take a look at the books on your bedside table, or the hobbies you love spending time on. Maybe that will give you a clue on your future direction

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Ladder of inference - issues in coaching

It is so easy to form a snap judgement in coaching. We form impressions of our clients - often without knowing it - and all of a sudden those impressions become 'truths', somehow fixed in our minds. We then start to act on those 'truths' and look out for further evidence to compound our beliefs.

I was working recently with a novice coach, John, who fell foul of this phenomena. He'd started to pick up signs that his most recent coachee wasn't fully committed to the coaching relationship, and as he was irritated by this wanted to give his new coachee strong feedback about this.  However, in supervision it became apparent that what John had actually experienced was a slowness to return emails, and some delay and confusion around setting up their first meeting. When he finally met his new coachee, the coachee was full of apologies - he'd had to have extra time off work due to a family crisis. John's irritation evaporated.

Peter Senge* calls this tendency to move unawarely from objective evidence (e.g. slow return of email) to unwarranted belief (e.g. the coachee is uncommitted) the 'ladder of inference'. Like everyone else, coaches are prone to build assumptions and beliefs based on what they see and experience of the client. The difference for me is that coaches should know the difference between an observation and an inference, and they should know the difference between one piece of data and a genuine pattern. More grist for supervision!

Senge, P. et al ( 1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and tools for building a learning organization, London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, pp242-246

Monday, 29 July 2013

Immediacy - advanced coaching skills

Immediacy is not a word you hear bandied about much in coaching circles, but is a skill I find characterises many experienced and effective coaches. Immediacy refers the ability of a coach to use their 'here and now' experience of the coachee as data in service of the client. This covers a broad spectrum including what the coach hears and sees in the coachee as well the coaches own sensations, curiosities and feelings.

An example might help - suppose the coach notices the client always refers to their boss with an ironic laugh. The coaches' intervention then might be something like 'I notice you laugh every time you mention your boss, could you say a little more about what is going on for you...?'   Equally, the coach might pick up a sense of unease when talking with a client which could be shared as 'I'm feeling a little  uneasy as we talk about ...., is that the same for you?'

Key to the use of this skill is firstly, selectivity and secondly, tentativeness.  I would only use my perceptions of the client if I thought they were relevant to the issues at hand and only if I had more than one example to share -- i.e.. a pattern. I would also make sure I offered them in a tentative, provisional way rather than as a judgement. This can involve taking a risk, but I have found that this sort of intervention is often invaluable and will lead our conversations into some rich and unusual places.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The answer vs an answer

I was working with a group of managers today on their coaching skills. As so often happens, a conversations started about getting their coachees to the 'right' answer, and asking the 'right' question to get them there. As the notion of a 'right question' leaves me genuinely puzzled I asked them how they knew what was the right question and how they knew they had got to the right answer. Some looked blankly at me, some ruefully admitted that the 'right answer' probably equalled their answer.

This lead me to think about how much of our training and education leads us to think there is a 'right' answer out there. Two plus two equals four doesn't  it?! However, in our increasingly complex world, the sorts of issues coachees bring to coaching don't have simple answers - if they did they would probably have sorted out there problems for themselves. Questions such as 'Where do I take my career?' or "How do I tackle my bullying boss?' don't have simple answers and there are many answers not just one.

Is this desire for a black and white answer and the magic 'right' question a denial of the complexity of living, a desire to control the uncontrollable?  I don't know... answers on a postcard please.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Signs of burnout in coaches

Like many others in 'helping by talking' professions, coaches are prone to 'burnout'. However, some of the coaches I supervise seem think this is something that their clients will suffer from (which it is), and are unaware of the symptoms in themselves.

I posted a recent blog talking about a general model of burnout - here's what it might look like when applied to coaches:

  • Phase of big illusions - believing that as coach you can change your clients and through them, the world. Coaching becomes a mission.
  • Phase of frustration - placing too high expectations on ourselves and on clients. We start to feel disappointment and frustration with the amount of change that seems to be possible
  • Phase of decreased vitality - client' start to feel like a burden, 'do I really have to talk to them again?'.
  • Phase of apathy - the work with clients starts to lose its meaning, 'what was the point after all?'.

So if we take 'self-as-instrument' seriously, we also have to make sure we do what it takes to look after that instrument. Down time is for coaches as well as their clients. 

Friday, 21 June 2013

'Getting' supervision

I attended the 3rd International coaching supervision conferences at Oxford Brookes University yesterday - and very good it was too. There was a real range of speakers from all over the world, and it struck me  that coaching supervision was now becoming much more of an mainstream activity instead of an peripheral add-on. Coaches now get that having supervision is part of the deal if you expect to practice and there is now much more of a pull for services.

However, I also think there is a way to go to help coaches understand how to use a supervisor effectively - a bit like there is often a journey to help coachees understand how to use a coach. Here I don't think the word 'supervision' helps us - it smacks too much of the autocrat overseeing and inspecting a minion's work. The trouble is nobody seems able to come up with a better word. As Prof Peter Hawkins quipped  - there is a case of champagne waiting for someone who can think of a better descriptor.

Coach supervision is of course, in part about quality control, but it is also about support and development for the coach. Great supervision should be about helping the coach to see more and be able to do more in service of their clients. Now why wouldn't you want that?

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

You are not talking to me!

Ever had a slightly weird feeling that someone talking to you is not actually dealing with you but with someone else. If so, you probably been on the receiving end of some 'transference'. Its a term that cover a myriad of situations, but refers in essence to when someone plays out a past relationship or way of relating in the present situation. So for example, its the phenomenon that explains why grown men suddenly start behaving like school children in the training room, just as if they were suddenly back at school. They are taking how they used to behave and transferring it into present situation - usually inappropriately!

Counter transference is when you start responding back - ie playing the role that has been assigned you. So if you have ever seen a trainer get all 'school-marmy' on you,then they are probably in the grip of some counter-transference.

Why does this all matter to coach? Well if you are interested in keeping your communication clear and open then you can easily see how this stuff could murky the waters. So if your coachee suddenly starts putting you on a pedestal .. and you would quite like them to ... check out if there isn't something else going on and take it straight to supervision.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Talking to the void

You may have noticed a drop off in my regular flow of blogs - I have all the usual excuses .. too much to do, working away, living in hotels, a new computer etc. But truth be told I've become a little dispirited of late with my blogging as its become a bit too much like talking to the 'void' .. putting out your thoughts into cyberspace with little or no feedback. Net result a tail off.,

Now I don't think I'm alone in this. Too many of us work in organisation where we get little or no feedback. It gets so we'd rather hear something, even if it is negative, rather than nothing. Net result .. a gradual disillusionment and disengagement from the organisation.

In my experience, really excellent organisations have mastered the art of 'little and often' feedback, telling people what they are doing right as well as what they are doing wrong as they go along.  Net result .. mistakes get corrected quickly and the positives get reinforced, but best of all we feel like we matter.

So would it really be so hard to press the 'like' button?

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Tread on my dreams lightly

I am a big fan of Ken Robinson  - author, speaker and adviser to government on education. Knighted in 2003,  he is also a naturally funny man. If you've never seen him action, watch this TED talk to get an idea of his talents:

His passion is how we crush passion and creativity out of children, with our education system deselecting anyone who dreams of doing anything other than going to college. Robinson wants to see a revolution in education where the diverse talents and aspirations of all our kids are nurtured. Quoting Yeats, Robinson suggests that we routinely trample on each others dreams, and that we should learn to 'tread lightly'.

I'm sure it is not just kids who have their dreams trampled on. Working as a coach I meet far too many people who are disconnected from their aspirations to the point of being afraid to have any dreams. Somewhere along the line it just becomes too tough to hang on to them. So next time you hear someone talk about their ambitions don't just mock... maybe listening to them might just spark something special.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Coaching across cultures

A fascinating conversation today about coaching people from different cultures. We all had examples to share about different cultural norms - do all Italians need to talk volubly and gesticulate, do all Turks wander off in meetings, and do all Brits speak indirectly and use sarcasm to express their real feelings? Or are these just lazy stereotypes that we hide behind rather than see the individuality of the person in front of us?

Whether we know it or not, we all see the world through a particular perspective, conditioned in part by our cultural norms, and in part by our own personality types and experience. Usually that perspective is invisible to us - we inhabit our own assumptions and beliefs - and it is only when we meet a different norm that we realise how different our own world-view is. A good case for working with a coach from a different culture perhaps?

Philip Rosinski has done some interesting work on what he terms 'cultural orientations'. These are differing cultural assumptions which vary from culture to culture e.g how power is held or shared etc. If you have 5 minutes take Philip's (free) questionnaire if you want to find out more about your own cultural orientation.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Who takes the notes?

A small bug bear of mine is 'who takes the notes in coaching relationship?'  An apparently small point I'd admit, but for me says a lot about power in the relationship and who is actually holding responsibility and ownership.

During a session many line managers I meet feel compelled to take notes because they believe they can't hold all the detail or that they will miss something vital. Fair enough if this so, but please, please, tell your coachees what you are doing as a minimum and even better if you give them your notes at the end of the session. Still better is learning to without notes altogether and giving your coachees you full and undivided attention - you can always capture your thoughts after the session.

At the end of the coaching session there is also a tendency for the manager/coach to take down the action points and agreement, perhaps sending them on shortly by email. For me this sends the message that the manager/coach is in charge and therefore responsible for the actions, as opposed to the coachee. If we believe that coaching is about increasing ownership and responsibility then this send out completely the wrong message. Far better to get the coachee to capture their own learning and action points.

So.. who takes the notes in your coaching sessions

Friday, 1 February 2013

Watch out for burn-out - issues in coaching

None of us are machines - despite our increasingly 24/7 lifestyles, all of us can only manage so much. A pattern I notice in clients is an expectation that the 'should' be able to manage all the demands on them. Rather than challenge the reasonableness of such demands the tendency is to 'soldier on'.

Which brings me to the topics of burnout - work for too hard and for too long we will succumb. Not good for us as individuals, those that love us, or the organisations we work in. It's therefore essential that coaches have an understanding of the early signs when working with over stretched clients:

  • Phase of big illusions - believing that we can change the world. Work becomes life.
  • Phase of frustration - placing too high expectations on ourselves leads to disappointment. We start to resent sacrificing our personal life, perhaps health problems start to niggle.
  • Phase of decreased vitality - we start to feel everything is a burden, we don't have time for play or personal development
  • Phase of apathy - work loses its meaning

Now of course it's not just clients that can burnout....

Thursday, 24 January 2013

What is your 'deference threshold'?

Ok picture the scene - you go to visit a new client/ customer or set up a meeting with a new senior manager. Instead of being your usual relaxed, poised and self-assured self you find you have regressed a couple of decades. Instead of speaking with your normal surety you find yourself babbling and tripping over your words. Nobody is more surprised than you.

This a sure sign that your 'deference threshold' has been tripped - instead of relating adult to adult you find yourself operating from a one down place in the face of this awesome (and possibly scary) human being. We all have a deference threshold - I recently asked a very experienced coach this week who triggered hers and she replied "I once had to work with an Army General ... that did it for me!" Usually the awesome being reminds us of parental or other authority figures from childhood days and has nothing to do with the reality of who they are. Sometimes we get entangled in other's power plays and it is everything to do with them.

Coaches have to learn to work with a wide range of people - including very senior people. It is therefore well worth finding out who sends you over the edge and what it is about them that triggers you. Good material for coaching supervision.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Be more like me - issues in coaching

I often have a tricky time explaining to novice coaches that advice giving, especially on a personal matter, is, by and large, a perilous activity. "But, I' ve been through something similar - surely they would benefit from my advice!" they say to me. Well yes and no.

The point is that we are not the same, and while our experiences may be similar, they are rarely directly equivalent. What works for one person in one situation may very well not be helpful for another person in another situation. Blindly copying another's actions robs us of our resourcefulness and keeps us from trusting ourselves fully.

However, my reservations about advice giving goes beyond this . So often for me the hidden message in advice is "Be like me". I heard someone tell a colleague recently to "be more confident" - unspecific advice at the best of times but also loaded with a judgement about the relative superiority of the speaker.- "Just be like me and you'll be fine" was the implied message. Surely our job as coaches is to help people be fully themselves, rather than poor copies of other people?

As Oscar Wilde so aptly put it "Be yourself, everyone else is taken !"

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Gaining perspective ... And loosing it again

So like the rest of the Western world I'm back to work after the Christmas and New Year break.
What was noticeable in the first few days back was the number of coaching clients who said something along the lines of "I'm feeling much calmer.. The holiday has given me a chance to stand back and re-prioritise... Much of the stuff I was making important just wasn't!" This is a great space to work with people in as they seem to hold their habitual ways of being and behaving much more lightly and seem much more open to exploring different ways of operating.

Then came week 2. Instead of experiencing a sense of calm and well being, clients reported how distant the holiday break felt and "It' s like it never happened". The frantic rush had begun again, and I noticed how it just took that bit longer for clients to 'tune into' their coaching sessions.

So apart from holding coaching sessions first thing on a Monday morning before the weekly scramble begins, has anyone any ideas for 'bottling' that feeling of post-holiday reflectiveness?